Lincoln at 200, part 7

Lincoln’s arrival in New Salem, Illinois as a penniless young man, and his rise to prominence there, form a memorable chapter of his career. It is a chapter that also strikingly illuminates Lincoln’s personal qualities. Christopher Flannery captures important elements of the story in “O captain! My captain!”

We know much of Lincoln’s career in New Salem thanks to Lincoln’s law partner William Herndon. Following Lincoln’s assassination, Herndon devoted himself to interviewing Lincoln’s living contemporaries from each stage of his life. No scholar has done more than Douglas Wilson to rehabilitate Herndon’s reputation among historians.

Wilson’s Honor’s Voice provides a compelling portrait of Lincoln drawn in part from the testimony Herndon collected. Wilson’s work was first brought to my attention by James McPherson in the pages of the New York Review of Books (review here, accessible to subscribers or by purchase).

Lincoln abandoned politics and pursued his legal career after serving one term in Congress. Yet he continued to deliberate over the issues of freedom and slavery that roiled the country. When Stephen Douglas effected the repeal of the Missouri Compromise through the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, Douglas forced Lincoln’s return to politics.

Lincoln immediately stepped forward to give one of the great, lesser-known speeches of his career. Confining himself to “the naked merits” of the question, Lincoln’s Peoria speech demonstrates his eloquent rejection of slavery expansion on historical, political and moral grounds.

With the dissolution of the Whig Party over the question of slavery, Lincoln became a leader of the Illinois Republican Party. When the party named him its candidate to oppose Stephen Douglas in 1858, Lincoln gave his House Divided speech, one of the most provocative speeches in American history.

Lincoln observed: “If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could better judge what to do, and how to do it.” Knowing where we are, and whither we are tending, is frequently difficult to discern. At such times, telling us us where we are can be a mighty act. Harry Jaffa’s explication of the House Divided speech in “The speech that changed the world” is a tour de force. “Of all Lincoln’s speeches,” Jaffa writes, “whether greater or lesser, the only one that can be said truly to have changed the course of history” is the House Divided speech.

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The Cooper Union speech of February 1860 introduced Lincoln to an elite Eastern audience. While in New York to give the speech, Lincoln visited Matthew Brady to have his photograph taken (above). The speech played a role in Lincoln’s nomination for the presidency by the Republicans later that year.

In the speech Lincoln reviewed the thought of the Founders on slavery. it is a remarkable work that should be better known than it is. In his superb review of Harold Holzer’s book on the Cooper Union speech, Allen Guelzo recalls Lincoln’s joking assessment just before his inauguration: “Brady and the Cooper Union speech made me president.”

In his bicentennial celebration of Lincoln, Walter Berns points out that “despite what he said [at Gettysburg], we remember everything he said, and we remember it because he took great pains to say it beautifully, to the end that we remember it….”

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